In March 1968 I first became a Rotarian. The country was Afghanistan and the club was The Rotary Club of Kabul. Mohammed Zahir Shah was king. The Cold War saw both Americans and Soviets building highways there, providing professors at universities (including my wife Mary) and in general leaving other givers such as Germans (who built the road down the Kabul River gorge to Jalalabad) and the United Nations Development Program far behind.
My first Foreign Service Assignment with the US Department of State had been to Hong Kong 1964-66. The situation in Viet-Nam had heated up after the Tonkin Gulf incident and U.S. congressmen and armed forces brass poured through en route to and from Saigon. I was from time to time detailed to escort admirals and such to speak at the Rotary Club of Kowloon or the Lions Club of Victoria. While sitting with British and Chinese businessmen at round tables over lunch I learned a lot about service clubs and responded positively to invitations to become a Rotarian. By then, alas, my tour was ending in Hong Kong and so I promised to join Rotary wherever the State Department sent me next.
That turned out to be assignment to the US Embassy in Kabul as Economic Officer beginning in December 1966. But there was no Rotary Club in Afghanistan. So I looked up the Evanston, Illinois address of Rotary International (RI) world headquarters and naively sent a letter asking, “How do I start a Rotary Club?” Sometime in mid 1967 a reply came from Evanston via diplomatic pouch. Its gist was, “Congratulations, you are now the official representative of Rotary International to do a preliminary survey to see whether Kabul can support a Rotary Club.” I needed to show that Kabul was diverse enough to have examples of 40 of a master list of 120 business or professional classifications. With some difficulty and fudging I succeeded, e.g., by using “Mullah” instead of “Christian Minister.” When we finally got organized as a provisional Rotary Club in late 1967, one of our charter members was a mullah and used car dealer from Herat, Senator Mujadeddi. I have met no one since who could eat so many and such hot peppers.
I soon found that the President of Ariana Afghan Airlines (51% owned by Pan Am), Charles Bennett, and a European businessman had tried three years earlier to start Rotary but had run into too much suspicion from both the Soviets and the government. My job became to convince (during 10:00 a.m. vodka and caviar meetings at the Soviet Embassy) that a Rotary Club was not a CIA plot (as indeed it was not). I had to assure the Russians that they too might apply to join the club. Our principal Afghan organizer was Abdul Rahim Majid, a prominent Kabul businessman. He went personally to the king and persuaded His Majesty that a Rotary Club would not break Afghanistan’s official neutrality among the Great Powers. Mr Majid returned with the King’s tacit approval on the condition that at least 50% of the club’s members were Afghans. That was wise, as the club might otherwise become all foreign.
Rotary International was puzzled that its nomination of the Rotary Club of Peshawar, Pakistan to be our sponsor was vetoed by our potential Afghan members. That taught me a lesson just how little trust Afghans have for their eastern neighbor. Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (where Peshawar is) had once belonged to the Afghans who in 1967 styled it Southern Occupied Pushtunistan. Our Rotary Club therefore became “non districted,” directly under Evanston.
obstacles having been cleared, in March 1968 I drove
RI President (onetime NC Governor and JFK’s Secretary of Commerce)
Hodges from Peshawar through the Khyber Pass to six hours distant and
feet higher Kabul where he then formally chartered The Rotary Club of
Those were the grand pre-Taliban days. When Communists took over in the
1970s, Rotary was dissolved. In 1987, while Diplomat in Residence at
University of Oklahoma, I renewed friendship with club charter
(American immigrant) Sher Afridi and with Charles Bennett’s State
In April 2003 Rotary International in Evanston,
Illinois, rechartered a successor Rotary Club of Kabul. Its first
is a woman. It belongs to a Pakistan Rotary District and is sponsored
a club in Peshawar, Pakistan. More anon. TPK]
Photo of first club banner
added 12/30/2007 after visiting Matt Pikar and Ahmed Zaki who
own/manage AFGHAN GRILL, Dallas, Texas.